Before I begin, I should tell you that Andrew Lewis Conn, the author of O, AFRICA!, is my client. That fact hasn’t influenced what I’m about to say—this is an honest opinion—but I wanted to be all see-through about it.
I hate the term “literary fiction” for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I think it dissuades people from reading because the simple reality is that many people equate literarywith boring. Are they right to do so? Nope. But they do.
Likewise, I’m not a big fan of the phrase “genre fiction,” because more often than not, it’s used in a derogatory context.
But despite what I think (apparently I don’t actually run the world!), these terms are key to the process of marketing and publicizing books. But what happens when a book is classified as literary fiction, but it is also genre fiction?
O, AFRICA! is set in 1928 and includes interwoven plot lines that cover topics such as race, sexuality, love, religion, movies, the mafia…to call it “sweeping” is accurate, if something of an understatement. Is it literary? Sure it is. Is it genre? Definitely. It is a big story, one that will be a different experience for each reader. For me as a reader, it was a historical crime fiction story.
O, AFRICA! has been classified by its publisher as literary fiction, and it has been presented to reviewers as such. It has received a lot of acclaim, so this was obviously a smart move. But I can’t help but think that without also sharing it with the genre communities, they’re missing an opportunity.
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt was one of the best-positioned books I’ve seen recently in this regard. It was classified as crime fiction, yes, but also presented as literary. Having an established brand-name author, winning the Pulitzer, and receiving praise from Stephen King didn’t hurt the book’s success, but these alone didn’t put it on the NY Times list for more than 30 weeks; without its genre-friendly positioning and early endorsement from the crime fiction community, this wouldn’t have happened.
So who decides how a book is classified? That’s a group endeavor. The author plays a role (although probably a smaller one most of the time than s/he should), as does the agent (assuming there’s one involved), and a whole host of people at the publisher. I’m not sure whether this particular topic is usually specifically discussed, but I’m fairly certain that it should be.
I’m now in the process of introducing O, AFRICA! to genre communities—readers, bloggers and, well, you—and so far, the reception has been quite positive. We all love a great story, well told.
I’ll report back on how it goes. In the interim, I’d be curious to know what you think…are category classifications useful? Is literary fiction more valuable than a genre label?